Why Google's Concession to Murdoch Won't Work

You can't put the free-content genie back in the bottle

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News. Corp chair Rupert Murdoch has spent the latter half of 2009 railing against the current "new-media" paradigm because most web users still aren't paying for his properties' content. He made headlines by announcing, then re-iterating his scheme to wall-in his websites and block them from all search-engines except for those prepared to pay for access, which Microsoft appears ready to do. Many bloggers were skeptical his ideas could work, but new announcements from Google seem to indicate the search giant's acquiescence to at least some of Murdoch's complaints.

In official company blog posts on Tuesday and Wednesday, Google explained that it was altering its policy of "First Click Free" so that publishers will now be able to limit individual users to five-free viewings of content per day. Reactions run the gauntlet, with most agreeing that Google's move was a bad one, for a variety of reasons:

  • Technologically Unsustainable Computerworld's Seth Weintraub says that busting through paywalls is not only easy, but mainstream, rendering Google's move useless. He points out the continued viability of "Google Trick" wherein users are able to skirt the Wall Street Journal's paywall by accessing it from Google News. He explains:
The new rule is that you can only click through Google searches five times a day to get around the paywall. Oh, that is five times per publisher.  So you can read five paywalled Wall Street journal articles per day and five from another publisher and so on.  And if you use a different browser where you aren't logged into your Google account, you can have five more. In other words, it is only going to be slightly more difficult to get around paywalls using the Google trick. Perhaps people who want to read the whole Wall St. Journal every day might be enticed to pay.  However, the majority of readers, who come to the Journal usually by a link from a blog or via a Google News search won't be deterred.
  • Treats Only the Symptoms Similarly, Econsultancy blogger Meghan Keene is still skeptical about Murdoch's ability to shift user behavior:  "These changes point to a bigger problem with Murdoch's entire paywall plan. It's not hard to fix the problem of giving away free information through Google search. It is more a question of perception. News Corp. can take its content off of Google's search crawler whenever it wants. But that will not suffice. They want to fundamentally change the way that people access news content online…With the recession — and the ongoing media crisis — publishers are hoping that readers will be more open to paying for content. But there's no proof that they actually will do so, which is part of why it is taking Murdoch so long to act on his threats (and to get others to sign on to do the same)." TechCrunch's Erick Schonfeld agrees: "The days of sitting down and reading an entire paper from front to back is over. On the Web, reading is more scattered as you flit from one link to the next and from site to site. Five free clicks per day is all most anyone really needs."
  • Undermines Google's Purpose ShortFromBlog's Ernie Smith delivers an uncommonly lengthy post shaming Google for bowing to any request from old-media publishers: "OK, we get it guys. Rupert Mur­doch com­plains really loudly and he’s start­ing to scare you into believ­ing other pub­lish­ers might be next. But why are you putting your tail between your legs and cre­at­ing tech­nol­ogy designed to limit how much peo­ple can read with­out reg­is­tra­tion or sub­scrip­tion? Rupert Murdoch’s com­plain­ing doesn’t scare us. 'First Click Free,' how­ever, totally does. The very idea goes against every­thing your com­pany stands for. Retreat, Google, retreat."
  • Won't Satisfy Murdoch The Atlantic's own Derek Thompson says Google's policy update means the conflict between new and old media-models is far from finished: "I agree with the Times' David Gallagher that it's unlikely to change the terms of the debate because it doesn't change the central struggle that is online advertising. Publishers are used to conflating audience and revenue. (Print circulation is up? Fantastic.) But online the equation breaks down, especially for big organizations like the Times and the Journal, because the CPMs are nothing like full page print advertisements. If you're a big reporting empire like the WSJ, online ad rates aren't enough to fund the things you're designed to do. That's why I'm not as quick as Arianna Huffington and others to dismiss Murdoch's search engine play." Gawker's Hamilton Nolan seconds him: "Rupert gets results. The New York Times is probably offering him a free Weekender subscription right now, to try to soften him up. But don't get it twisted: He's just begun to fight. He likes this stuff!"
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